BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL For the Sun-Times
In the north end of the park, the highlights of the early going Friday came from a pair of Mexican women bandleaders, Ceci Bastida and especially Teri Genderbender of Le Butcherettes.
Bastida, who lives in Tijuana, was an accidental discovery of the sort these big festivals can offer if you're willing to take chances on unknown acts. I only caught a few songs, but with Bastida singing and even enthusiastically rapping as her band dropped glossy swatches of trumpet and trombone over urgent dance beats, the show was a percussive party and she the happy host.
Guadalajara-born Genderbender lived up to her name not in appearance -- she's classically beautiful and impossibly thin. Instead, she did so in ways even more challenging to the patriarchal expectations of rock: By commanding a pulverizing three-piece punk band, playing guitar with fierce authority, expressing overt and aggressive sexuality, and projecting a forceful, even dominating, must-see stage presence.
Her lyrics crossed borders, too, between lust and revulsion ("You love me, you love, but now you want to kill me," she howled) and between English and Spanish ("Mueres todo el tiempo antes de morir," she sang: You're dying all the time until you're dead). In outlook and force of personality an obvious touchstone was PJ Harvey, but Genderbender was far more physical as a performer, kicking, hip-swiveling or falling to the ground, smashing her own head with the microphone or somersaulting wildly across the stage. While the fellows who comprised her rhythm section were no slouches, Le Butcherettes were all about their leader, and she delivered an explosion of individuality on a scale that's hard to match.
The music had started much earlier with the four-piece TAB the Band (as distinct, apparently, from TAB the vile cola), which played featureless riff-rock fronted by Adrian Perry. He's the sort of singer who delivered lines like "I need you all night long" and "I'm a wrecking ball" entirely free of irony, and the sort of band leader whose stage patter included arrogant snark like, "Yes, there are bands that still play their instruments." It's ironic that the bushy-haired, bearded and beflanneled Perry would look more at home at Lolla '91; his dad is Joe Perry of Aerosmith, a band whose histrionic puffery embodied what the original version of this festival was created to rebel against.
While it's hard to conjure a more precious back story than a husband-and-wife act named Tennis who wrote an album based on a sailing trip, they turned out not so dire. Alaina Moore's lyrics didn't leave much room for the listener ("seafarer, we belong together," or "Take me out baby, I want to go sail tonight"), but she was a gifted, expressive and rangy singer. And though the trio's rock template was antiquarian, they smartly blended and updated girl-group sha-la-las with glittering surf guitar and shuffling drums.
Walking between stages in the early part of the afternoon I stumbled on what I thought was a serendipitous chance to catch a few unscheduled minutes of a fine singer and songwriter. It turned into a lesson on the indignities endured by the working musician. There was Haley Bonar, clutching her guitar and backed by her drummer, preparing to play a couple songs live on WLUW. Except the station's stage was in a tent that was actually an auto showroom for a festival sponsor. It was covered in garish advertising, and worse, pretty much every soul in earshot was there not for the music but the car or a chance to win it. I did hear Bonar gamely engage a very earnest on-air interview and make her way through two songs that were far prettier and more graceful than they had any right to be under the circumstances. Here's hoping Bonar's scheduled gigs--at the kids stage today at 4 and tomorrow at 2:30--give her the kind of close-listening audience her songs reward.
Los Bunkers traveled thousands of miles and crossed cultures to get here, but musically speaking they didn't ask the audience to meet them halfway. The Chilean flags in the small crowd and the fact the quintet's members didn't speak or sing a word of English were the only things separating it from a standard Sixties tribute act. You can't go far wrong nicking riffs from "You Really Got Me" or the spooky, ringing organ from "A Whiter Shade of Pale," of course, but if these guys were from Carbondale rather than Concepcion, they wouldn't be here.
On Grace Potter's planet there was nothing new under the sun. Playing to the big crowd she was mostly in belter mode, though when she held back, her smoky smolder owed a clear debt to Bonnie Raitt. Either way her style was a fine fit for her hirsute band, the Nocturnals, who played an Allmansesque amalgam of Southern rock and slow-burn blues. Potter proved a talented player, too, fronting the five-piece on guitar or piano. But their formula was so familiar that even their best songs sounded shopworn.